Author: Greg Rosa
Professor Gerald Early describes an incident when teaching a passage of Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield, displaying his ignorance, describes Egyptians as “an ancient race of Caucasians residing in…Africa.” Some of his black students took umbrage, and he was confused by their reaction. Early comes to the conclusion that the students were reacting to a perceived impingement on an aspect of history the saw as their own, and that they saw that putting on a pedestal (so to speak) was part of the students’ “attempt to create a true black self-consciousness or to create for blacks a world in which they can see themselves through their own eyes.” But as Toni Morrison rightly points out, “in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled the literary discourse.” It is important to expose the evasions of history, and thereby contribute to a much needed discourse about the role and place of Africa in world history.
When time and again there is an exclusion from the story of “world history,” “world civilization,” “human history,” the natural inference is that anyone or anything not a part of that story is therefore not a significant member of the “world” or its “history,” and by extension, can be considered to be not significantly “human.” This is a conceptual process which is illuminated by a quote from Keith Thomas’ masterful study, Man and the Natural World. Thomas writes that “if the essence of humanity was defined as consisting in some specific quality, then it follow[s] that any man who did not display that quality was subhuman, semi-animal.” The idea is not to try to go back to some mythical past or to enforce a new order dialogue where a mythical past informs the present and begins a myth-making endeavor, constructed by, and at the service of, intellectuals. For, as Antonio Gramsci wrote in his essay on “Hegemony,” the intellectuals are “the dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government;” they are (he writes) “functionaries of the state whose role is to enforce dominant ideology.” It is long past time to call for our academic institutions apply the same level of research and rigor to a human history that is far more diverse and truly “multicultural” than most courses in “World History,” “Ancient Literature,” World Civilization,” or any standard history, would have you believe.
There has been a comprehensive glossing over of the part that people of color have contributed not only to world history generally, but also European and American history specifically. Restoring Africa’s central place in the story of humanity would serve to regain some measure of integrity and honesty to the discourse of human history among the academic and intellectual establishment.
It is important, first of all, to understand that a discussion of Africa needs to step away from the cage of colonial thinking, whether pre or post. James Ngugi’s (Ngugi wa Thiong’o) contention that the language of African literature – and by extension, its history – “cannot be discussed meaningfully outside the context of those social forces which have made it both an issue demanding our attention and a problem calling for resolution,” offers up a very limited perspective. That focus only takes in a narrow view of history. The presence of Africa is a part of the human story from the very first. Ngugi takes up the issue of education in his book Decolonizing the Mind. He situates education, as with literature, in its “relationship to imperialism in its colonial and neo-colonial stages.” However, African literature, like its history, predates the imperial powers by centuries, if not millennia. The notions of education and literature – as well as history – would be better served if they were placed within the historical context.
On the opposite side of the spectrum of Western exclusivity is the idea of Afrocentrism. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Afrocentrism as “a cultural and political movement whose adherents regard themselves and all other blacks as syncretic Africans and believe that their worldview should positively reflect traditional African values.” The problem with that view is that it treats Africa as one homogenous group with a shared heritage and shared values. That is an intellectually suspect position, at best. But between the two extremes lies the more measured propositions put forth by Martin Bernal and others. They hold that “Egyptian medicine, mathematics, and astronomy…critically influenced Greek science.”
To that list can be added literature as well. The sources of many of the Greek (and later, Roman) myths and stories, which obviously had their antecedents in Egyptian mythology and stories. The River of the Dead, the Ferryman, etc., all had their genesis from Egyptian originals. There are substantial references to Africa in Roman literature, such as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And one only has to read Plato to discover he acknowledged the influence of Egyptian writers and scholars on his own work. There was cultural exchange between the various societies. Egypt was not buried in the sands of history, an ancient, dead, dry “long ago” that existed in its own bubble and impacted very little in terms of the human story. Interactions with Egypt and Africa were a significant part of Roman history. Not only was the future of the Republic decided when Marc Antony’s fate was sealed in Egypt, there was also the significant impact of Hannibal both militarily and on the Roman psyche. Although much is made of Rome and its martial prowess, the African general had the country on its knees for decades before he was defeated. The Romans considered him a worthy adversary, and even a casual reading of Plutarch could see that he significantly impacted the Roman mindset. The Romans saw no glory in overcoming someone who could so easily be defeated. Although in today’s world Hannibal would be demonized, deemed barbaric, mocked and castigated as being less than human, he was more like the Soviet Union to America during the height of the Cold War: someone who was a counterbalance, and could very well put them in their place(and in fact he had done for some time).
Along with Toni Morrison, I too, am “convinced that the contemplation of the black presence is central to my understanding of our national literature.” The same can be said to be true, by extension, of our shared cultural history. Only I would not limit the black presence and influence in our literature and culture to be extant only from the time of the colonial powers and the post-colonial period, but extending far backwards to the dawn of our human story. There is no need to mythologize the past as some who adhere to Afrocentric views might do. Nor is there a need to retreat back into some theoretical conceptual framework that ignores the English-speaking world, as Ngugi has done. The proper placement of Africa in the human story is to examine the continent and its many countries not only in their relationship with one another, but also in relationship to the typical triumvirate which are usually explored in world history – Greece-Rome-Western Europe(-America). To that end, I agree with essayist Gayatri Spivak that “a nostalgia for lost origins can be detrimental to the exploration of social realities,” and skews our viewpoint and makes things less clear, not more. There is no need to mythologize. There is only the need to look through accepted scholastic lenses and describe what is already known and acknowledged. Then we can say, along with Morrison, “in what public discourse can the reference to black people be said not to exist? It is there in every moment.” Africa has shaped our biology, our history, and our stories. Ignoring Africa is exactly the same as denying your own history and family, and with the same effect: it alienates us from ourselves.